By Jon Langford
As you might expect with a band that’s 32 years-old, James have experienced line-up changes, drug addictions, in-fighting, break-ups, reunions and almost every other rock ‘n’ roll cliché you could care to think of. But what separates James from their peers is that this is a band that has never lost its relevance (a remarkable feat when you consider they’ve survived such un-timeless trends as Madchester, baggy, Britpop and beyond).
So while their peers are currently rolling out nostalgia tours playing “the hits” to anyone that’s still willing to listen, James are back with their thirteenth studio album La Petite Mort (French for “the little death”).
I caught up with frontman Tim Booth ahead of the band’s sold-out Webster Hall show to talk life, death and football.
FT: One common theme on La Petite Mort is death and I know this is something you’ve sadly had to deal with recently…
Booth: It’s not “sadly” though, because it’s a fact of life. There’s birth and there’s death and they’re two different windows. Being at my mum’s death was actually an amazing revelation for me because I realized it was a birth. And that’s not even a spiritual idea; when it happened it really just felt like a birth.
FT: I know you’ve said that your mother’s death was just about the nicest way that anyone could go, pain free and surrounded by love.
Booth: She was ninety and she really wanted to go about six years earlier. You know, we’ve got this whole thing about prolonging life, but we’re prolonging life at the wrong end. I’d like to live long, but I wouldn’t like to live long in those last fifteen years, they don’t look so exciting to me [Laughs]. But if we could extend life when we’re in our twenties, that’d be nice.
FT: It would. So was writing the lyrics for this record therapeutic for you or was it difficult to confront your thoughts and emotions?
Booth: It wasn’t difficult. The words wrote themselves. Most of the lyrics I write write themselves and it was indeed therapeutic writing them. I don’t tend to think ahead so I just kind of threw myself into them and I’m very happy with them. But then of course when it came to having to sing them every night I went, “Oh shit.”
FT: Because you’re sharing very personal feelings with strangers?
Booth: No, I don’t mind that. It’s because some nights I’ll burst into tears and you can’t sing when you’re crying. Some nights I get the balance right with being really emotionally challenged and stirred up that it goes into the song, but you can’t control it because grief is a very strange thing. It comes in waves. Sometimes you can laugh about your mother dying and other moments you’re in tears. It’s very odd.
FT: I think that juxtaposition really comes across in the album, too. You’re dealing with a subject that many people would find morbid, yet the album doesn’t feel melancholy. I think “Moving On” must be one of the most uplifting songs about death ever written. Lyrically and musically.
Booth: We’ve always done that, where the band purposely play uplifting music to a heavy lyric. Take “Come Home” for example, “After thirty years I’ve become my fears/I’ve become the kind of man I’ve always hated” and yet that was in a pop song. So we’ve always worked with contrasts and contradictions. I believe paradoxes are the most fascinating statements about life. You can make a statement about life and the opposite can be equally true and that’s about as close as we can get to a real truth, when the opposite is also true. Our whole approach to this album was about celebrating life and not mourning death. It’s not a Western approach. It’s more of a South American one. That’s why we had the Day of the Dead imagery as artwork. Down there they talk to the dead, they take the piss out of them, they leave food out for them. It’s a much more tangible relationship.
FT: That’s a healthier way of dealing with death, I think.
Booth: I think so too. In the West it’s so hidden from us. When my dad died I was in New York and they promised me they’d keep the casket open until I got there and they didn’t. I really wanted to see him because I needed to say goodbye to him, not a box. I watched an amazing documentary years ago that’s stuck with me. It was filmed in a village in Bali and there was this old man that they thought was aged somewhere between 105-115, they didn’t know exactly, and he’d been a famous artist who worked according to the moon cycles. One day he called the village together and told them that, according to the moon, it was time for him to go and he lay down and died. And then the village passed his body around and they kissed him and they cried and they said goodbye. I thought to myself, “Holy fuck, that’s the way to go, that’s what we should be doing.”
FT: I think the video for “Moving On” profoundly captures what we’re talking about here. Was it a collaborative effort between the band and the director, Ainslie Henderson?
Booth: Yes and no. We’ve known Ainslie since he was about 19, and he’s been making these amazingly beautiful animations for a few years now. We’ve really wanted to work with him for a while and so we asked him to pitch a script for “Moving On.” The first one he sent over was crap so I rang him up and we talked about the song and I told him the story of my mum dying and the story of Gabrielle dying who was my mate that lived in New York and was one of the people I loved the most in the world. So Ainslie went away and thought about it and one day he was listening to the song on his headphones and he passed by a store with a ball of wool in the window just as the line “Time always unwinding” was playing. Two days later he sent me the fully formed storyboard.
FT: It deals with a difficult topic beautifully.
Booth: They’ve started showing it to kids who are dying in hospitals in England. Kids with terminal illnesses want to know about death because they’re dying, but the parents don’t want to talk about it because they don’t know what to say.
FT: Okay, let’s leave the topic of death for now because otherwise that’s going to be all we talked about. Do you have a favorite track on the record?
Booth: “Walk Like You.”
FT: And is there one that’s your favourite to perform live?
Booth: “Curse Curse.”
FT: There’s a lyric on “Curse Curse” that goes, “Turn the TV up/Copa del Rey/Messi shoots and scores/A hundred thousand came.” I think that line really captures the religious-like quality of football. What’s the story behind the lyric? Were you watching a Barcelona game when it came to you?
Booth: I’m very aware of the ecstasy that men get from a goal being scored. I love watching Barcelona, so Messi was easy, and also because sex is messy so the metaphor worked on all levels as I was comparing the goal to the sex happening in the hotel room next door. They’ve done a study on men that shows if your team wins your testosterone goes up at least twenty percent, but they’ve found it hard to study what happens when your team loses because most of the men are so depressed after a loss that they don’t even come back for the study.
FT: On the new record the band worked with a producer they’d never collaborated with before, Max Dingel. How was the process and what did Max bring to the table?
Booth: It was great. Max is a German who speaks great English. He’s very precise and he’s very patient, which you have to be to work with this band because everybody has different ideas and everyone’s very passionate about the music. Max is a real sonic maestro. He filled up the studio with all this old equipment from the sixties, seventies and eighties that he’s collected. It was great.
FT: Speaking of the eighties, in the early days it took James a few years to find mainstream success…
Booth: Seven years.
FT: …Was there ever a point where you thought of giving music up and doing something else?
Booth: Not really. There was one day when our drummer suggested it and we all looked at him and went, “Fuck off.” We were sure that what we were doing had value and that it would eventually be recognized. Our live audiences were growing in a very encouraging way, but the problem was we couldn’t get played on the radio or television. This was a long time ago when there weren’t many TV and radio stations. Even when we were playing to 5000 a night in Manchester, we still couldn’t get played. But then one day, Radio One suddenly decided to start playing us.
FT: Every album James has released since what would generally be considered the band’s heyday, the nineties, has charted in the top twenty in the UK Albums Chart. In your opinion, how has the band managed to stay so relevant?
Booth: Actually, we’re bigger now than we were in the nineties, just not in the U.K. In places like Peru and Mexico we play to 15,000 people, and these are territories we’d never been to before about five years ago.
FT: How about in the U.S.? How would you summarize James’ career here?
Booth: There was that moment where we nearly broke, but then we took three years to release an album and in that time the head of the record company changed and the new guy hated us. And that was the end of that.
FT: Getting back to my question about how James has managed to stay so relevant, what do you think your secret is?
Booth: We’re still hungry and we were never too successful. I think if you get really fucking successful it’s hard to motivate yourself. We’ve been successful, but we’re still a working band, you know, we still have to work our arses off. I think we’re very proud of what we’ve done and we want to maintain that and push it further. We’re not finished. I left in 2001, but that was different. The band was a mess because of addictions and various other things, but now we’re back and we’re the strongest we’ve ever been. We’re getting on better than we ever have done and musically we’re a force. So as long as that continues, we’ll continue.
FT: Do you still enjoy touring?
Booth: Oh yeah. I love touring, love it. Especially with a new record. But it’s scary as well because we only just about know the songs. We’re not a band that rehearses a lot, but we like the energy that that brings. It’s better than being over-rehearsed.
FT: You’ve often said that because of the liver disease you suffered as a young man you’ve had to be careful around the drink and drugs lifestyle that many rock and roll bands traditionally indulge in and, as a consequence, seek your highs elsewhere. Is one of those highs dancing?
Booth: Yes, dancing is my drug. I dance a lot and it brings up altered states. I drink once every three months and I take drugs once every two years, so I get high from dancing and meditating. Both of these things allow you to go deep into your psyche and find parts of yourself that are buried.
FT: I read somewhere recently that you’re currently writing a novel. How’s it going?
Booth: I am writing a novel but I haven’t touched it for about six months because of the new record. I’m not a natural writer and I have to fight a lot of procrastination. I can’t write on the road because I need silence to work.
FT: What’s the book about?
Booth: It’s kind of a ghost love story.
FT: What’s next in your burgeoning acting career? Any forthcoming roles we should be aware of?
Booth: I haven’t even got an agent. It’s weird, I moved to L.A. and I had this agent and I never really got put up for anything. If something comes my way I’ll take it, but I’m not looking for it because James has become pretty all-consuming.
FT: Before we finish, let’s talk football. Like me, you’re a Leeds fan. What do you make of Massimo Cellino?
Booth: [Laughs.] He seems very honest, but paradoxically, obviously dishonest simultaneously… probably… according to a judge anyway. I love his outbursts. They’re hysterical because he says and does things that nobody else would or could. Stuff like, “He’s fired!” and then a few days later, “No, he’s not fired and I should really fire myself” and then a week later, “No, he is actually fired.” Sadly, I think the Football League will try and get rid of him, which would be awful for Leeds. But if he stays it’ll be a roller coaster ride and we’ll see a lot of managers come and go. He’s passionate and who knows, maybe he’ll get us back into the Premier League.
FT: Do you think Leeds have any chance of going up this season?
Booth: I don’t think so. I also think not letting Neil Redfearn carry on was a mistake. The players seem to play for him. And what’s more, it’s hard for a new manger to come in after the team has won a few on the trot and then the new guy doesn’t get the results. It puts a lot of pressure on the new manager.
James new album, La Petite Mort, is out now.